Teaching Time: 10 mins
Playing Time: 30-60 mins
Setup Time: 10 mins
Value For Money: High
Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is a lot of things, it’s a movie franchise tie-in first of all, it’s also a Deckbuilder, a Co-op game and a semi-legacy one. That’s a lot to chuck into the mix for what is an entry level package that will be picked up by people both totally unfamiliar with modern gaming and those who have played every deckbuilder since Dominion. On balance it does a pretty good job with the mix but there are a few significant flaws.
As far as play goes, the basis of the game is a pretty standard deckbuilder. Players start with a deck of ten cards which are lightly themed by a character and a few different elements in each of the starter decks. Cards tend to fall into four categories, healing characters, drawing and discarding cards, generating coins and finally generating attacks. Coins are spent to purchase cards from a shared marketplace, further building decks to generate coins and purchase cards. Meanwhile there are enemies who will activate each turn and dark arts cards which can generate negative effects such as damaging players, attacks can be applied to enemies to defeat them. The game takes place in certain iconic Harry Potter world locations, which can be lost to enemies, control of locations is built up by enemies when certain events trigger or when heroes are knocked out. If all the locations fall to enemies the players lose, if all enemies are defeated the players win.
The presentation of the game is certainly intended to feel high end, and it has many parts that lean that way. Boards are thick and solid and there is an abundance of tokens that never feels cheap. The tokens used to mark enemy control in particular are metal and feel very high end. Its such a pity that odd little things let it down then. For example, the copy I picked up had for the box blurb a literally pasted on sheet presumably for localization reasons, but being on the bottom of the box, which takes wear and tear on shelves and such, its quick to grow tatty. The inlay provided is intended to hold all the cards through the game and again a high-end feeling set of card dividers are provided to facilitate this, but when all the cards are unlocked they don’t quite sit into that inlay properly, sitting slightly proud. It’s a small quibble, but since the inlay is in there and has clearly had work put into it its odd that it hasn’t been done quite right.
As a gateway deck builder the game does a great job, its legacy light feel is given by adding extra cards and rules into the game each time the players win. As such the first few games are easy to pick up with things getting more complex as things progress, meaning that those totally unfamiliar with modern deck builders will soon get to grips with some complex play, but that also the more experienced can jump straight to later years. Its in the addition of the cards though that the two most significant flaws of the game arise.
Firstly, cards are introduced to the game representing more powerful threats and more advanced powers, but they are never removed. The upshot of this is twofold. First and most significant is that by the time players are halfway through the game’s campaign the deck of available cards can start to become bloated. This can mean that there are games when only weaker cards are available even when more powerful enemies are encountered, or that only more powerful cards are available in the market place when players have no chance of affording them, effectively shutting down the game. Additionally, it can be almost impossible to plan a built deck to set up an engine efficiently since the other cards needed to fuel it can be buried within a marketplace supply that doesn’t get closed to cycled through. Ironically this means that in the first few games where multiple weaker cards are available and useful at any given time players can form real strategies, but at a point before newer players are likely to understand the format well enough to form them, while in later games players will mostly find themselves having to purchase whatever cards become available whenever they present themselves.
The second issue is that since enemies are introduced but never removed and eventually become presented randomly you can end up with Crabbe and Goyle (the weakest enemies in the game) being the last barrier before Lord Voldemort attacks, which creates an image somewhat removed from the story being told. Which brings me to the overall feel of the game as an immersive Harry Potter experience. Its hard to say how much it really matters since I suspect that players will fall into one of two groups, one just wanting a co-op entry level game that they can get a friend or partner playing with them, and the other who will be delighted just to slap down a card with Nymphadora Tonks on it.
That said there are some strong points, the difficulty ramps up well and certain enemies like the Baslisk remain potent threats through out the game, however cards are never maintained from game to game, so there is little sense of the four child heroes (Harry, Hermione, Ron and quiet badass Neville) progressing in power from their studies. They gain upgrades eventually, but not many. Additionally, every threat is ultimately dealt with in the same way, building decks, generating attacks and then blasting them into tiny shreds. Its hard not to feel that the potential for story has been somewhat lost when the Baslisk is dealt with in essentially the same way as Professor Quirrel or Belatrix Lastrange. Admittedly it can be deeply amusing to see minor bad guys from the franchise horribly outclassed by the heroes as they realise they’re out of their depth but the application of semi mindless violence for all problems seems out of step for a series of books which at their core are about thinking around problems rather than punching right through them.
This comes to the single biggest issue with the game, the difficulty curve. The first few games are fine, the available cards in the market supply are tightly controlled and matched well to the enemies, players will build power roughly commensurate with the threats faced. After those games though the enemies and market place become more randomly presented such that the difficulty curve shifts hard towards having an early peak. In fact, if players are still alive after about the first third of most games they’ll then have a deck so tooled up that any upcoming bad guys are simply walking into a wall of super hurt. Since He Who Must Not Be Named is stacked at the end games he turns up in this means that almost without exception when ol’ baldy turns up he’s walking directly into a wall of spell based megadeath. In short, an early game Baslisk, Lestrange or Greyback can be a serious threat and will often see players fail, but if you get to Voldemort you’re more likely to pity him for the pain he’s got coming his way than fear him.
All of which is a pity mainly because Hogwarts Battle isn’t a bad game and could so easily have been fixed. Had the marketplace been divided out by years in some way or cards retired as the game moved on the difficulty curve could have been easily controlled, it would also have saved the necessity for some pretty obscure elements from the films having to fill in, having a generic unnamed ‘Death Eater’ as a bad guy really seems like a lost moment for example. If you see the massive overpowering of the late game as a satisfying reward for what can be an early game struggle then the system works very well, and certainly if players make it to the late game they’ll almost certainly be rewarded by a powerful and satisfying deck that kicks like a premiership footballer. Equally if you’re either delighted to be calling on Shacklebolt or simply amused to vaporize any member of the Malfoy family then the game will provide that experience in a not particularly brain burning manner. If you don’t particularly want to work on building a deck with card ratios and don’t give two hoots about cycling or power dilutions then this is a slick, well presented and satisfying package that is easy to pick up and will amuse for quite some time. If you end up finding it a little shallow then its not like the market is under supplied with excellent more complex deck builders and you’ll be well provided for if you do decide to upgrade in difficulty.